Diversity is not just about accepting differences but about celebrating and embracing them as sources of strength and resilience. No one understands this better than Sharon Wilder, Chief Equity Officer at Montgomery College, who has used her background in civil rights law to pioneer comprehensive innovation strategies in the Higher Education (HE) space.
Sharon sat down with GoodCourse to discuss her journey in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), the need to advance cultural competence among students, and the challenge of ensuring lasting social change.
I’m the Chief Equity Officer at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland. I’ve been in this role since May 2017, and I’m the first person to hold this position at the college.
I have a longstanding interest in the space. When I graduated from law school, I became an ethics attorney and worked in civil rights. From there, I began to teach Civil Rights Law before becoming a director of several university programs. Then I moved into the private sector, mainly working on compliance issues around Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Soon, I noticed people were using different terms: diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. As the language evolved, my role changed too, moving away from compliance issues and towards a greater focus on equity. Here at Montgomery, we have the most diverse college campus in the continental United States, with over 116 nationalities in our student body. Although we have excellent representation, we’re still working hard to ensure everyone gets an equitable college experience.
That’s a great question! Actually, I’m now in the middle of developing a new college policy around cultural competency and defining our DEI terms. It’s important to have system-wide definitions to build a comprehensive strategy. When you have a highly diverse student body, there is a wide range of social and cultural cues among people of different backgrounds. For example, in some cultures eye contact is a sign of respect, whereas in others it is considered rude or challenging. So we need to be attuned to all aspects of the cultural spectrum.
We have lots of programs to raise awareness: we have equity dialogues every spring and fall, where we address issues that might affect students. For instance, last fall we talked about the rise of antisemitism. It’s not just for students but is open to the whole college community. After one conversation about LGBT+ issues and mental health, we realized we needed to develop more intense training: we’ve already held over 18 sessions, and the reception has been very positive. We’ve just wrapped up our Equity Week: every day, we had programming addressing subjects from disability awareness to homelessness. We’re also finishing our in-depth racial equity training, which offers credentialed badges for Anti-Racism and Social Justice.
When I say, “I have an idea”, it sometimes makes my staff cringe because they know we’ll be trying something new! Recently, we’ve been running “leveling-up” retreats with our staff to think about new ideas. I’m the Executive Convener for our President’s Advisory Committee on Equity, and I’m also on the task force for Hispanic-Serving institutions. Both of these are mission-oriented task forces that seek to think of strategies to serve minoritized students and create innovative opportunities for employees to learn. When it comes to equity, you need to educate yourself if you want to move the needle. So I’ve developed a new model called the “Cycle of Change” which aims to take people from awareness to action.
When I arrived, I had to build a brand-new office from the ground up. All I had to work with was a post description! So I developed a DEI strategy and a roadmap to guide the college in this space. When I first created the plan, we had five objectives, but we’ve since added a sixth. Two years ago, we added Anti-Racism to our list of institutional goals, and our senior leadership has been working in lockstep to focus on issues around racial equity. Being a senior leader and working in the President’s office has allowed me greater reach across departments. We have Senior Vice-President liaisons in each division, allowing us to work vertically as well as horizontally. When we talk about educating the college community, it’s not just about faculty: it’s every layer of our institution. We want to take everyone through the Cycle of Change.
We have a five-year DEI plan which runs through 2025. We had an incredible amount of movement very early on — we’ve probably achieved 80% of our objectives already. When you set goals, it’s easy to obsess over results, so we’re fortunate to have made good progress.
For dialogue sessions, we start with communication agreements to set the stage for conversations. We know certain topics can be triggering, especially for people who’ve experienced trauma. For example, when we had a dialogue about the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of emotional discovery — learning together, hearing together, and listening together. We planned one session, but the response was so overwhelming we had to extend it to three. It’s not just about hearing those words but reflecting on what’s been said.
Educate yourself. As individuals, we have a responsibility to make a better world for all. But you must work at it — it doesn’t just happen by chance.